Schmelzer Sonatas

Author: 
Jonathan Freeman-Attwood

Schmelzer Sonatas

  • Sonatae unarum fidium, I
  • Sonatae unarum fidium, II
  • Sonatae unarum fidium, III
  • Sonatae unarum fidium, IV
  • Sonatae unarum fidium, V
  • Sonatae unarum fidium, VI
  • Sonata for Violin and Continuo, 'Il cucù'
  • Mystery (Rosary) Sonatas and Passacaglia, No. 10 in G minor: The Crucifixion

Performances of works from the indigenous Austrian seventeenth-century ‘school’ have made a significant impact on the status quo of mainstream baroque instrumental music of late. This is not to say that the more formalized Italian traditions, that dominated in Vienna until Schmelzer’s gradual and unspectacular rise to Kappelmeister of the imperial court in 1679, have been in any way shown up; rather that the distinctive rhetorical flavour of Mittel Europa has both broadened our horizons and encouraged players and listeners to think more flexibly about the unique language of composers such as Biber and Schmelzer. These are men who have left a remarkable amount to the imagination, as we have seen in Romanesca’s Gramophone Award-winning discs of Biber’s 1681 violin sonatas (Harmonia Mundi, 2/95, a free sampler of which is included with the present CD): and yet, a step of faith, technical brilliance and a commitment to find the dramatic and emotional heart of these solo works reaps untold rewards. Whilst Biber has enjoyed the most marked renaissance of those in the employ of the imperial court, Schmelzer is the spiritual father of this colourful native expression.
Coming to these new recordings (the first to include all six of Schmelzer’s pioneering Sonatae unarum fidium, or “Sonatas for one violin” of 1644) from Biber’s extravagant and incomparably theatrical sonatas, one is immediately struck by common stylistic threads but also by Schmelzer’s studied lyricism (as in the opening of Sonata No. 6 with its recurring bass suspensions), a searing and disarming feel for melodic progression (heard in the close of the Cucu Sonata) and the sense of a man who, when he is not following his tail with ostinato basses, has thoroughly mastered the canzona-sonata mentality and takes full advantage of its freedom. All Biberian features certainly, but as Andrew Manze both explains in his note and demonstrates in his playing, there is less overall ostentation here; whilst the extraordinary Sonata No. 4 latterly contains gloriously extended and potent outbursts, it is the patient arching direction of Schmelzer’s melodic frame which draws one into his web.
Manze and his accomplished continuo players (the contribution of the theorbo is both exquisite and distinctive) are, again, wonderful exponents in this mesmerizing baroque byway. There is much sweetness, delectable shaping and easy virtuosity in the violin playing and perhaps a hint of rehearsed spontaneity in the freer moments – a contradiction in terms but one hard to avoid in such sections where Schmelzer is not quite the equal of Biber. But this, unquestionably, is another supremely fine achievement. The minimal modification by Andreas Schmelzer (the composer’s eldest son) of Biber’s Tenth Rosary Sonata is an interesting filler: a questionable programmatic transformation from Resurrection to “The Victory of the Christians over the Turks”. Manze clearly has a rout on his mind here, gung-ho, rough justice (and intonation on the scordatura tuning at times) and no prisoners. Convincing, but I await Romanesca’s recording of Biber’s original conception to spot the differences and prove that the power of the performer of seventeenth-century music is almost unrivalled.'

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